Loss of Eastern District elected positions discussed

Wednesday, March 27, 2002
Arkansas Attorney General Mark Pryor talks to Craighead County Eastern District Deputy Clerk Leisa Couch and Eastern District Deputy Sheriff Dewaine Malone about the change of their elected positions. (Town Crier photo/Revis Blaylock)

Arkansas Attorney General Mark Pryor was in Lake City Friday to discuss the opinion handed down by his office that upholds Arkansas law restricting the way some public officials are elected. The positions in question were Craighead County Eastern District Deputy Sheriff and Eastern District Deputy Clerk.

Craighead County Eastern District consists of cities of Black Oak, Lake City, Monette and Caraway and Lunsford, Dixie and Lester communities. Since 1883 voters in the Eastern District have elected candidates from the Eastern District to serve. Craighead County Sheriff and Clerk traditionally appoint the winners to the respective positions.

The Craighead County Election Commission recently cited Attorney General's opinion as the basis for ending the tradition.

Attorney General Pryor said he was there by the request of state Representatives Jerry Allison and Bill Gipson. He said he was there to listen and answer questions.

Also present for the meeting were Craighead County Sheriff Jack McCann, County Clerk Nancy Nelms, Eastern District Deputy Clerk Lesia Couch, Eastern District Deputy Sheriff Dewaine Malone, County Judge Dale Haas, State Representatives Bobby Lee Trammel, and Billy Gipson, and election commissioner Warren Depwe.

Rep. Allison said that they were not there to cast blame but to see if any action could be taken to reinstate the vote.

Craighead County Sheriff Jack McCann was asked how he felt about the situation.

"Well, the deed's been done. We have to deal with it. I want to assure everyone that as long as I am sheriff who ever holds this office will be from the Eastern District and I will continue to support the Eastern District and the courthouse in Lake City. Apparently the law says the election it is not proper and can't be held. But whoever is here needs to know the area and should be from the Eastern District. Some people think it is a step in doing away with the courthouse. Dale (Craighead County Judge Dale Haas) will agree that would not be fair to the Eastern District," McCann said.

Craighead County Clerk Nancy Nelms also said she is proud to have the courthouse in Lake City.

"We have early voting here. All of the years I've been here, since 1978, we have had this election and I never looked at the law. It is just common courtesy to appoint who is elected," she said.

Lesia Couch, deputy clerk, and Dewaine Malone, deputy sheriff, are both completing their first term in the position. They both had recently announced their plans to seek re-election.

"I'm a little disappointed. Also, if the question came up two years ago, I was not aware of it," Couch said. "It has worked all of these years."

Later in the meeting Couch said she was not upset about being appointed, she thinks the decision takes away from the Eastern District. She said candidates have been paying their $500 filing fees and she understood that it did not cost anything to put two more names on the ballot.

"Like Lesia, I was disappointed. It has gone on for 119 years. I like representing the Eastern District and hope to continue to," Malone said.

County Judge Dale Haas said he started his election position in the Eastern District.

"This is a 119 year old tradition and the people take it very serious. I take it very serious," he said.

Rep. Trammell said he did not understand where it started.

"Someone had to complain before the Commsion did this. I don't think it is right. I respect the Attorney General and I know he is fair. I have a petition drawn up to get it on the November ballot to let the people have a say. Bill (Rep. Bill Gipson) said he would do anything to help. I don't understand after all of these years why all of a sudden this comes up. I want the people of the Eastern District to have a say," he said.

Rep. Gipson has researched and is still researching on what can be done.

"I have no quarrel with the Attorney General's opinion. My telephone has been busy. It was said this came up before but no one, not myself, Lesia or Dewaine, were notified. I asked if I could present legislation to amend the law but found out that after 1927 a special bill can't be amended. I am willing to introduce any type of bill to reinstate the Easter District vote. If something is not broke, why fix it. This has worked for 119 years. We are going to petition the people to see what they want.

"I have heard some concerns from people about the courthouse in Lake City being taken out. I did find out that it would take a statewide referendum We will fight to keep the courthouse in Lake City," Gipson said.

Pryor said there was no indication that the county is trying to close the courthouse.

He said the question was a clear question and the law was clear and no reflection on these individuals.

Rep. Trammell asked Dupwe if someone had complained or if he remembered who asked for the Attorney General's Opinion.

He said no one had complained to him. He said the vote was 3-0.

"We needed to do what the law says and follow the Constitution. It's our oath to do that," he said. "The Attorney General did not only what was right but what he had to do," Dupwe said.

"The great thing about this part of the county is you have a strong identity," Pryor said.

He said there are ways to resolve the issue. He suggested that maybe a non-binding election could be held. Eastern District voters could drop their unofficial votes for the two seats into a seperate box, those votes would be tallied, then defacto officers would be appointed as a result of the vote."

Pryor told the officials he would work with them and be glad to come back.

Larry Emison, former Craighead County Sheriff, contacted the Town Crier and added his commitment to the Court House in the Eastern District adding that he thinks the election of the two offices should be reinstated.

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